By now, most of us have seen the CCTV recording of a woman being pushed into the path of a London bus by a male jogger. The incident happened two months ago, but video of the Putney Bridge attacker has only been released now in an effort to find him. He’s little more than a blur in the footage, described by witnesses as a white man in his mid-thirties with short brown hair, and he appears to deviate from his path in a concerted effort to attack the woman – in other words, she’s not in his way and he doesn’t elbow her to the side with unfortunate effect, but rather he sees her ahead and swerves toward her in order to give her a proper two-handed shove into the busy adjacent road.
There was immediate media interest in the case. “Jogger rage: Putney Bridge runner flings woman in path of bus” was the headline at The Times, one of many which questioned how a seemingly normal man making his way down the street in running gear could suddenly turn on a random passerby.
Discussions about whether “jogger rage” can cause sudden insanity abounded. The Evening Standard ran a headline quoting some who had waded in on the so-called debate: “Shocking attack by runner on Putney Bridge ‘cannot be blamed on jogger rage’.” Twitter was awash with ruminations about how far “jogger rage” can go, whether it’s the affliction of our times, whether people have been suffering in silence from a strange and terrible urge to kill or maim strangers once they pass the 5km mark on their morning jog.
My personal breaking point came when I tuned in to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning and heard one of the main discussions centring around the female victim’s ordeal – who, lest we forget, could have died if the bus driver hadn’t swerved at the last minute away from her head hitting the road in front of him – and what could possibly have driven the male attacker to do it. “Jogger rage” was once again on the agenda, with guests invited to talk about angry joggers they’d come across and whether that particular activity encouraged such behaviour. The general consensus was that everyone’s come across an aggressive jogger or two in their time. “Not all joggers, of course,” someone cut in, predictably.
Important as that discussion about an exercise-related condition we’d never previously acknowledged or heard of is, I couldn’t help but wonder whether “What is it about jogging that caused this poor man to act, presumably, completely out of character?” might be the wrong question. Perhaps it might be more pertinent to ask: “What is it about society that means we often hear of men randomly trying to push women to their deaths?”
Remember the last time CCTV footage of a man attacking a female stranger in a public place went viral? In 2016, a man on the Berlin subway was filmed following a woman partway down a corridor before kicking her down a staircase. The unprovoked attack left the victim with a broken arm. The group of men who watched the incident stopped briefly and then walked away, leaving her lying face-down and injured at the bottom of the stairs.
I was reminded of that particular incident a few months later, when I walked up the stairs at a London Underground station on my way to work and a man tried to push me backwards down them for no reason at all. Instinctively I grabbed the stair rail and he didn’t manage to displace me, but I saw his face close-up, twisted into inexplicable rage apparently at my mere existence.
Of course we never mean all joggers when we say joggers, and “Not all men!” has become the tiresome cry of many an angry male reader whenever any female journalist tries to bring up sexism. But when you’ve been on the receiving end of the random anger of a male stranger, you realise in a split second how a potent misogyny bubbles under the surface of society, occasionally spilling over into violent acts.
Of course, most of us aren’t misogynists and most of us will be left scratching our heads about what on earth might have caused a man to do something so severe on his morning jog that it could reasonably have led to a female stranger’s death. But it’s irresponsible to ignore the obvious answer when we are becoming culturally more tolerant and more protective of sexism; when a Google engineer sends round a memo suggesting we should “be able to debate” whether women are “biologically hardwired” to do their jobs less well and then complains about his “freedom of speech” when he’s fired for inappropriate behaviour in the workplace; when Donald Trump, leader of the free world, says of female journalists in an Esquire interview that “it doesn’t really matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass” and remarks: “You’re disgusting” when a woman in the workplace excuses herself to breastfeed. It’s a long time since a leader in the West pronounced such vocal disrespect for women, and it’s ridiculous to deny that such words don’t have consequences in wider society.
There are debates and there are prejudices. There isn’t a “debate” to be had about whether women – or black people, or gay people, or any other traditionally marginalised group – are “biologically hardwired” to be less clever or less skilled at their jobs. There isn’t a “debate” to be had about whether breasts should be reserved for pleasing men rather than feeding babies. And there isn’t a “debate” to be had, when a man attacks a woman, about whether he was “driven to it” by “jogger rage”.
In order to change society for the better, we have to sanction the right debates and ask the right questions. “Is this the beginning of a jogger rage epidemic?” is the wrong question. So let’s turn our attention to a better one.
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